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American Civil Liberties Union Santa Cruz County: License Plate Readers? Not Here!
by ACLU Santa Cruz
Wednesday Jul 23rd, 2014 1:50 PM
Privacy Protection is First Priority
Santa Cruz is a few pen strokes away from installing Automated License Plate Readers in city police cruisers. While the Santa Cruz chapter of the ACLU recognizes this tracking technology has legitimate uses, the privacy concerns compel us to recommend these cameras not be deployed.

Some of our concerns have indeed been addressed. The retention of camera data by SCPD would be limited to one year in most cases, and any access of that data would be individually authorized on a case-by-case basis. Some amount of auditing already takes place between agencies to limit abuse, and we commend SCPD on passing its own recent federal review of local checks and balances with high marks. But our information is winding up in some surprising places far from Santa Cruz.

Whistleblowers have warned us of a new breed of technology-enabled threats to our privacy. Our intelligence community is siphoning massive amounts of information about its citizens into centralized databases. Countless companies have now received National Security Letters ordering the secret release of our email, chats, photos, and passwords to the NSA and other groups in our highly funded intelligence community.

The planned host of our automotive photo albums is NCRIC, the Northern California Regional Information Center, which also assures us proper procedure will be followed when accessing our data. This provides little comfort, as the original mission of this post-9/11 "fusion center" is to more effectively share data between U.S. and local law enforcement. NCRIC's policy plainly states they hold no liability for data once it has been copied to any of these "third party" organizations.

So once photos of your family car are transmitted from a patrol car or a stationary camera to NCRIC's servers, there is no real accountability. Maps of our daily lives constructed from these ALPR data points can reveal an astonishing amount of personal detail even when the data is "sanitized" or "anonymized", as researchers have repeatedly proven. Silicon Valley and Big Data continue to invent new ways to tease new insight from large databases like phone logs, website visits, and other scraps of otherwise personal (and assumedly private) information.

Citizens deserve to visit health clinics, abortion centers, political meetings, and support groups without an indefinite list of agencies registering the event in their databases for arbitrary future use. Our rights to free assembly, speech, travel and privacy are being challenged at a core level. The chilling effect of the emerging surveillance state has serious ramifications for the future of our democracy.

The Supreme Court recently ruled warrantless collection of information like photos and contact lists from cell phones is an unconstitutional violation of privacy. The court cited an earlier case where warrantless GPS tracking was curtailed in spite of law enforcement's stance that it was equivalent to tailing a suspect in a police car. Technology is often ahead of the law, but the courts are catching up, and continue to recognize the rights of U.S. citizens against intrusive, automated dragnet surveillance.
We urge SCPD and City Council to reconsider their deployment of ALPRs.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Razer Ray
Thursday Jul 24th, 2014 11:39 AM
So... You're implying the US just-us Shitstem works?
by Sylvia
Thursday Jul 24th, 2014 11:47 AM
A work-around to the use of readers might be to bicycle, walk, hmm, ride a horse ...
by The 101s of FTP
Thursday Jul 24th, 2014 12:57 PM
The police state needs to be directly resisted at every step, because the next step after them buying license plate readers is them buying facial recognition cameras, when those are affordable.

Traveling by bikes and wearing masks is great, but I want liberty.
by Steve Pleich
Friday Jul 25th, 2014 8:11 PM
It comes as no surprise that we are in the midst of an increasingly informational age and, consequently, an information gathering one as well. The rise of modern electronic surveillance technology creates a paradigm is which the amount of information generated is directly proportional to the development of new techniques to gather that information. The latest development in this ever-increasing upward spiral of information gathering is the license plate scanner/reader systems now on line in some 38 states. So what are we as civil libertarians to make of this development?

My initial reaction to any “batch” collection of essentially personal and individual information is one of concern. The delicate dance between the “reasonable expectation of privacy” that is constitutionally guaranteed to every citizen and the “information as the foundation of public safety” ethic which strangely seems of equal value to many is an equation that is not easily balanced. However, the assemblage of huge amounts of information in the absence of any clear plan for its use or designation of its purpose creates a potential for abuse that should concern us all, civil libertarian and members of the general public alike. So what does this mean for civil liberties and personal privacy in Santa Cruz?

The Santa Cruz City Council has approved funds to purchase two next generation license plate readers for installation on department vehicles. Some privacy advocates, including the ACLU, have expressed concerns about using these new devices to gather and retain information on otherwise lawful abiding drivers. The Santa Cruz Police Department says the information gathered by these units would be subject to current record keeping practices, which is to destroy them after two years. It also says that license plate readers only gather information on the vehicle, and the officer must search a separate database to see the name of the registered owner. Officers cannot look through license plate records collected through the units for no reason and such searches must be associated with an investigation. And therein lies the rub.

Law enforcement is an intelligence gathering entity which is always engaged in an “investigation”. Any claim to the contrary is simply not truthful. The natural instinct of any police agency to access information is irresistible and, indeed, part of its training and standard operational procedures. To say that any officer in his or her pursuit of public safety would exercise any measure of reasonable restraint is specious at best. And so another piece of what we would like to believe is our private lives is to become a matter of public record. Can this be the balance between our reasonable expectation of privacy and the stated need for gathering information that the constitution envisions? Or does this new technology fail the personal privacy litmus test that we as individual citizens determine for ourselves? Unfortunately, in today's world, that may be just one more piece of information that will be gathered and analyzed and which yields no real measurable outcome or answer.